ASK FATHER: Baptized but never lived as a Catholic, soon to marry

From a reader…


A cousin of mine was baptised in the Catholic Church as an infant to fulfill the wishes of persistent grandparents. But was in no way raised in the Church and never recieved any other sacraments – is she Catholic? And bound by the laws and precepts of the Church? She is marrying a man (whose religious background I know nothing of) outside of Church (obviously, shes never practiced or known the faith), is this, in the eyes of God, a valid marriage? Or would it be valid only if she married in the Church? I have been asked to be in the wedding party and wish to know the waters I am navigating.

Thank you for your priesthood and guidance.

Baptism has effects and consequences.  When one is baptized into the Catholic Church, one is – forever and always – a member of the Catholic Church.

One might never darken the door of a Catholic Church after the baptism, but one is still always a Catholic. As a Catholic, one is bound by the laws of the Church.

This is one reason why the Church insists that, for a child to be baptized, the parents consent to it, and the priest (or deacon, or bishop, or authorized lay person) have a reasonable hope that the child will be raised in the faith.

This is one reason why just baptizing any child that is brought around may not be the best idea: there are consequences 2o years down the line, such as an invalid marriage.

Insistent grandparents notwithstanding, baptizing a child when there is no reasonable hope that the child will ever be taught the faith, go to Holy Mass, receive the sacraments, or otherwise practice the faith, is not a good thing. If the grandparents are going to insist on the baptism of their grandchildren, then they are obliged to follow through with the catechesis and formation of their now-Catholic grandchildren.

Every baptized Catholic is bound by law to observe the Catholic form of marriage, for validity.

Since this is the Church’s law, the Church is able to dispense from it.

The marriage of a baptized Catholic outside of the Church, and without obtaining a dispensation, is invalid.

However, it’s hard to imagine that someone who has never practiced the faith would even be aware of the need for a dispensation, let alone have the understanding of how or why to obtain it.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Sportsfan says:

    Pope Benedict’s Moto Proprio “Omnium in Mentem” explains this clearly.

    From 1983 until 2009 there was a loophole that this document closed.

  2. byzantinesteve says:

    I am reminded of the fact that Father Z has repeatedly pointed out that there is no canonical penalty for attending an invalid marriage.

    In this post from several years ago, Father Z asks the most important question: what is most likely to bring that person back into the graces of the church?

    I had to decline attending my cousin’s wedding because she, to my knowledge, still loosely identified as Catholic and yet planned to marry a divorced man in a protestant ceremony. I was concerned about the potential scandal involving family members who knew I was a Catholic and would interpret my presence as signaling approval. I wrote her a very polite letter explaining my situation and though we have never been close, I’ve never felt like she has been cold to me since.

    In this particular situation, I believe there is no serious reason that would prevent the original questioner from attending the cousin’s wedding. To decline to attend based on her being baptized as an infant (and never having identified as a Catholic herself) would have the potential to damage the relationship irreparably. In my opinion, not going to the wedding would be imprudent if your ultimate goal is to bring her back into the church.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  3. John Detwiler says:

    My non-Catholic sister married a man in the very same situation. I am at a loss as to how to talk about their “marriage” with my children. Are they married? Is her husband “uncle?” What difference is there between an “invalid” marriage and no marriage?

    Any advice is appreciated.


  4. Father, thanks for this.

    People mean well when they push for baptism in this sort of circumstance, but it really does harm. Not only what was described, but it can also push people away. Someone close to me was in this situation, many years ago; her child was in some danger when born, and she — under duress — agreed to such a baptism, even though she had no intention of either practicing the Faith, or teaching it to the child. Later, the circumstances gave rise to some resentment about the pressure that was applied, which only made the alienation from the Faith greater.

    Years later, the child so baptized gets married, and not according to Catholic form, of course. That created difficulties for Catholic family members — should they attend the wedding? And, of course, the marriage is deemed invalid, even though both the groom and bride were free to marry.

    Here’s another wrinkle: there was no real way the marriage could have been valid — apart from the party, baptized-but-never-raised-Catholic, deciding to learn and practice the Catholic Faith. Why is this? Because, in order to be dispensed from the Catholic form of marriage, the Catholic party is asked two questions: do you intend to live your faith as a Catholic? And, will you do all you can to see that your children are baptized and raised as Catholics? How does this young man — again, baptized but never raised as a Catholic — make such a promise in good conscience? Surely we do not want him to sign the promise insincerely, in order to render his marriage valid in the eyes of the Church?

    I know it sounds harsh, but there are times I wish I had a time machine, and I could go back and say to those putting on the pressure for a baptism (or worse, performing it themselves secretly), “See what a mess you made?” Yes, they meant well; but how often we do bad things while “meaning well”!

  5. RWG says:

    Fr. Z. I have a related question. If “baptized a Catholic, always a Catholic” is true, then what about a person baptized in an Anglican Church who is then received into the Catholic Church? Does “baptized an Anglican, always an Anglican apply”? [Certainly not.]

  6. Lirioroja says:

    I agree with everything Byzantine Steve wrote. I would add, since the letter writer mentioned being asked to be in the wedding party, that he or she ought to politely decline. It’s one thing to attend the wedding as a guest, it’s another to actively participate as a member of the wedding party. I had to make such a prudential decision myself when I declined to be my sister’s matron of honor.

  7. hwriggles4 says:

    My mother told me a story about her newer pastor at her parish (this took place within the last 7 years, and my mother is well known and well connected at her parish):

    One day, a woman showed up and demanded that the pastor baptize her child that day. This good parish priest took her to a quiet place and explained why he could not grant this request. Baptism requires proper preparation, and it requires parents and godparents to take this seriously. I also know some good priests who have implemented guidelines for Quincenaras (y hablo Espanol pequeno), which require spiritual preparation and are wise to do only a few times a year and in group settings.

    Good priests stand up …. they are not “yes men”, “doormats”, and sometimes being pastoral means having to tell fellow Catholics things they do not want to hear.

  8. veritas vincit says:

    I have 4 relatives (all siblings, 2 brothers and 2 sisters) in this situation. Their parents baptized them in the Catholic Church as infants, then later their parents left the church. None of them have practiced as Catholics since childhood. All of them married in Protestant ceremonies (3 of which I attended). Of course, none of them received dispensations of form. (Likely they were unaware of such a need). Therefore, from a canonical standpoint, their marriages are as invalid as for someone divorced and remarried.

    This strikes me as unjust in a couple of ways. First, my relatives and their spouses (assuming those spouses were themselves baptized) are deprived, through absolutely no fault of their own, of the graces of a sacramental marriage that other baptized Christians receive. Second, should any of them ever divorce and want to marry a Catholic, they have a “get out of marriage free” card that could potentially create scandal.

    I’m assuming that they are not objectively in a state of sin, because they all believe they are validly married.

    Of course this is all the consequence of the requirement of form, originally intended to combat clandestine marriages in the Middle Ages, which authorities like Dr. Peters advocate removing as obsolete. There used to be an exception for those who “formally defected from the faith” but that exception was abolished by Pope Benedict (in the Motu Proprio mentioned by Sportsfan).

    Or do I have this wrong?

    [Dr. Peters can speak for himself. Otherwise, life is messy and people’s lives don’t fit easily into a single stream of circumstances and events. The Church’s laws are remarkably flexible and they reflect Divine Positive Law.]

  9. Sword40 says:

    Wow, I can relate to this problem. As the father of seven children, all grown and on their own, only two have stayed Catholic. The others have all married outside the church and, yes, all were baptized Catholic. Of the five who left the church only one was anywhere near us when they got married. He asked us to attend. We postponed our answer until after we had talked to two different priests. One was a well known Jesuit, who is now retired and the other was our FSSP pastor. Both said “no” we should not attend. Our son was devastated but his fiancé understood when we explained why. She is a protestant. My wife and I love her a lot. Our son has since accepted our explanation. Same thing happened to a grandson who was a Catholic and then got hooked up with some AG’s. His new AG wife has barely spoken to us since.

    Short story, I got tired of being the one to throw my Catholic beliefs under the bus. All our other kids know where we stand. It’s their choice if they do not fulfill their Catholic duty. We pray for them daily.

  10. “veritas vincit” accurately reflects my views. Canonical form is a cure that has long since outlived the disease. It places many people in conflict of conscience (and common sense) positions and causes scandal THOUSANDS of times each year. It needs to go. More here:

    [Meanwhile, dura lex sed lex.]

  11. Imrahil says:

    In such situations, is there any chance for a Catholic relative (as the unbelievers wouldn’t) to write to the respective chancery, explain the situation in brief, explaining also that there will be no promise to pass on the Catholic faith or learning it oneself because the couple does not intend to do that, and ask for a dispensation of form so as to avoid a non-marriage?

    It is or should be a matter of course that there cannot be a Catholic celebration in such a case. But about an ad maiora mala vitanda dispensation for a cityhall wedding, I am not so sure.

    (Of course the couple themself would have to be “put in cc”, as it were, or whatever is the paper equivalent of this.)

    [Frankly, I think that marriage banns should be reinstated.]

  12. Nice photo of an Orthodox baptism. Immersion is the ancient practice.

  13. APX says:

    [Frankly, I think that marriage banns should be reinstated.]

    They seem to be alive and well in the Anglican Use Ordinariate. I’ve heard them read out loud by the priest right before the sermon in Elizabethan English still using such terms as “spinster”.

    That being said, regardless of whether the banns are read/published, people could raise their concerns to the officiant prior to the wedding.

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